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EDITOR'S NOTE: This series of profiles of some of the creative Nova Scotians working behind-the-scenes in the film and TV industry at home and abroad was begun before the COVID-19 outbreak. We are running it now to highlight the talents of those who will be working to help get the cameras rolling again once things are under control, either with years of experience under their belts, or just getting started in the world of media production.
It was the end of an era for props master Andy Miller when This Hour Has 22 Minutes filmed its final episode at the storied CBC-TV studio on Bell Road in February.
A busy wrangler and crafter of unique objects on film and TV sets for over 20 years, Miller has to pack up his tools, spare parts and his creations to prepare for the move to the satiric news show’s new home in downtown Halifax’s new Culture Link multi-purpose arts centre in the former World Trade & Convention Centre.
It’ll be a whole new world for Miller, but he’s used to coming up with practical, believable objects for film and TV scenes on the fly, on productions ranging from Lexx to Haven, sometimes in the strangest locations.
“Everything’s a warehouse or a curling rink. The fact that anything gets done here is actually a miracle as far as studio location builds go,” he says over a cold beverage at downtown Dartmouth’s Brightwood Brewing.
“It’s pretty impressive that you can turn a curling rink into a school (for Mr. D) or into a police department on Haven. It’s kind of wild.”
When he started in the business in the mid-1990s, Miller had just moved to Halifax from New Brunswick after getting his masters degree. Through a chance encounter with a former college roommate — who was then the production manager on the Salter Street Films-produced sci-fi series Lexx — he got his first TV gig as a set dresser working in the former Electropolis studio on the Halifax waterfront.
“Basically, I started sweeping the floors, and four years later I was prop master on Lexx,” he says with a grin. “Of course, I was in over my head, but you usually are when working in the film business, that’s how you learn.
“It’s how experience is created and every show you do is another stepping stone.”
Creating reality from imagination
A satiric space opera with a sexy edge, Lexx was like jumping in the deep end for Miller, who found himself charged with coming up with objects and weapons that didn’t exist in reality.
“Yeah, there was a lot of latex,” he chuckles.
“What’s amazing is how what we did on Lexx back then would be so easy now. Green screen was still a new deal, especially out here, and plate shots, it would have been so easy to do (robot character) 790’s eyes and so on.”
After Lexx wrapped in 2002, and Miller worked on features like the film adaptation of Daniel McIvor’s play Marion Bridge and Rick Mercer’s Made in Canada series. Then a stint on the fourth season of the Dartmouth-shot comedy series Trailer Park Boys brought him to the attention of the art department at This Hour Has 22 Minutes, which hired Miller and once again threw him in at the deep end, providing props for its whirlwind flurry of sketches and filmed pieces which were constantly changing at a moment’s notice.
On the fly
“22 Minutes is a very hard show to do, we get our scripts Wednesday, and then we shoot on Thursday and Friday. Some stuff gets shot overnight, and then you do the live sketches with the audience. It’s very challenging,” he says.
“No show’s like it really, and I’ve been doing it for 15 years.”
Working on a show that’s often adapting to news as it happens means Miller often gets thrown last-minute curveballs, like the time he built a jetpack for a Mark Critch piece with then-Minister of National Defence, Peter McKay.
He’d already quit for the day, but it was a special request requiring a last-minute trip to Canadian Tire for parts and an all-night workshop jag so it would be ready for the next day’s shoot at a news conference at CFB Shearwater.
“There is an adrenaline rush for sure, a real passion,” he says. “You have to be committed, and for some reason, I like being involved in this collaborative, creative process,” says Miller, who likens most set jobs to being cogs in a wheel, “but this wheel is kind of awesome.”
“What I’ve learned along the way is, you’re kind of invisible until you need to be visible, you know, helping an actor with a prop or having the right thing at the right time for whatever is everything.”
Miller, who was recently promoted to the post of art director following the retirement of longtime 22 Minutes crew member Stephen Osler, enjoys the show’s schedule from September through March, which allows him to work on other projects in the late spring and through the summer, whether its a series, a movie-of-the-week (which seem to have increasingly shorter schedules) or a feature.
On working with actors
Over the course of these productions, he’s developed interesting on-set relationships with actors, who sometimes need instruction in how to use a given prop. A few years ago, he talked recent Academy Award nominee Jonathan Pryce through a scene for the Nova Scotia-shot feature The Healer where he had to make and serve escargots, something Miller had been preparing for for weeks.
To his relief, Pryce was much more relaxed about the process than Miller was, after making sure the equipment and the technique to use it would be up to the director’s gourmet standards.
“Some actors are props-dependent, and sometimes you have to go, ‘Buddy, I know you’re going through hell, let me help you out,’ ” he says.
“I find the more insecure the actor is, the more props are in their hands, whether it’s a cigarette, a drink or a gun. A confident actor is like, ‘Oh, whatever, if it’s in the script, I’ll deal with it. But I don’t need it,’ which I find cool.”
Miller says no matter what he’s doing, when one job ends the phone rings and something new appears on his schedule. Over the years, he’s maintained strong ties within the local film community, like with his own original props master Gerold Schmidt, originally from Germany, who decided to stay on after Lexx, and has since worked on local productions like The Mist and The Lighthouse.
Miller says he’d hoped to work with Schmidt on the upcoming Stephen King historical horror series Jerusalem’s Lot — a perfect challenge for his skills, “set in the 1850s, with 88 days of shooting” — although like every other major film or TV production at the moment, it’s fate remains up in the air while quarantine conditions continue.
When the cameras start rolling again, Miller will return to the role of being his own taskmaster, and a perfectionist who considers having the thought that a prop could have been better as unforgivable.
“I’m really proud of what we’ve done,” he says of his run on This Hour Has 22 Minutes to date. “Your only real payoff ultimately is you’re creating this stuff that becomes art forever. But sometimes it’s garbage forever, but you might as well do your 100 per cent ’cause it’s forever.
“That’s it; it’s out there and you can’t erase it.”